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Jun 112013
 

The band’s personal conflict and artistic turmoil proved to be fruitful because . . . Like Clockwork is Queens of the Stone Age’s most concise and mature disc to date.

. . . Like Clockwork by Queens of the Stone Age.

 

The first song on Queens of the Stone Age’s breakthrough sophomore LP, Rated R, is the notorious “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.” Its lyrics—”nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol”—are repeated ad nauseum, followed by the band chanting “c-c-c-c-c-cocaine” for the choruses. The song is determinedly breezy, its blithe hedonism cathartic as well as satiric, effectively foreshadowing the 40 minutes of drug-referencing desert rock insanity to come.

Thirteen years later, and Queens of the Stone Age is in a very different place as a band. No, the act hasn’t left the desert or forsaken its fuzzed-out down-tuned guitar tones. But the group’s sensibilities have matured since the insistently adolescent Rated R.

. . . Like Clockwork, the band’s latest effort and its first in six years, is a refreshing departure. It was not conceived (as the other albums presumably were) amid a drug and alcohol-inspired craze. This new LP was inspired by frontman Josh Homme’s struggle with depression after being bedridden for four months in 2010. His bandmates were supportive of him during this period, but the recording process turned out to be troubled and included the reportedly emotional firing of longtime drummer Joey Castillo.

However, the band’s personal conflict and artistic turmoil proved to be fruitful because . . . Like Clockwork is Queens of the Stone Age’s most concise and mature disc to date. Musically, it is less consistent than the rest of the band’s output, but repeated listenings reveal a clear and powerful narrative arc. The album is, as Homme describes, the “journey of moving forward.”

The album begins with the sinister “Keep Your Eyes Peeled”—the antithesis of “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.” While the latter breezes by recklessly, the former trudges along at a deliberate pace that is interrupted only when it explodes into the bridge. The chorus of this track contains some of Homme’s most candid lyrics: “I play this as though I’m alright/If life is but a dream, then/Wake me!” Homme is not the unflappable risk-taker projected by the tunes on Rated R; he despairs just like the rest of us.

This newly articulated vulnerability adds a sense of depth absent in past Queens of the Stone Age records. “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” features extraordinarily tender vocals from Homme, who admits to feeling utterly lost and loveless. The track’s piano and orchestral strings further lend the song compelling emotional weight—it feels like the most ambitious song on the album despite being the shortest in length.

While there are many tender moments to be found on . . . Like Clockwork, Queens of the Stone Age steers clear of acoustic ballads. The band keeps the guitars electric and distorted. Many of the songs on this disc are simply content to rock—for instance, the second track, “I Sat by the Ocean.” The song’s structure isn’t particularly innovative—it fits neatly into the band’s customary brand of desert rock (and hard rock in general), but its energy and passionate vocals are undeniably catchy.

Even catchier is the lead single, “My God Is the Sun.” The song features a jagged, pummeling intro that is uncharacteristic of the band, but it really gets the listener’s blood pumping. The song changes direction abruptly, featuring a burly bass groove, maracas, and eccentric crooning from Homme until spiraling out of control yet again for the choruses. The latter’s vocal chant, “Heal them, with fire from above/Kneeling, my god is the sun,” is particularly captivating.

Queens of the Stone Age — they’ve grown up.

“My God Is the Sun” is the closest thing to a “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” on . . . Like Clockwork. Perhaps it was somewhat misleading of the band to release it as the lead single, especially seeing that the ominous “Kalopsia” comes next in the tracklist. The song offers two dreary, lullaby-esque verses that noisily burst into crushing choruses. Trent Reznor is guest-featured on this track, providing percussion and backing vocals. He is integrated flawlessly into the band—his melancholic presence subtly adds to the song’s downcast atmosphere.

Even more forlorn than “Kalopsia” is the title track—a string-kissed piano ballad that concludes the disc. Homme’s pained vocals here become overwhelming, and the refrain, “Because not everything that goes around comes back around you know,” strikes a surprisingly mature nerve. The rawness of Homme’s voice is almost as exhilarating as the desert rock jam that momentarily interrupts the tune’s sadness. However, this brief jolt of energy gives way to a second verse and chorus that are just as affecting as the first. Homme’s closing lyric brings the album to a realistic close: “One thing that is clear/It’s all down hill from here.”

. . . Like Clockwork is an impressive achievement. All 10 of its songs could easily be considered successes, including the devilish “If I Had a Tail,” the star-studded romp “Fairweather Friends,” the swaggering “Smooth Sailing,” and the desert rock odyssey “I Appear Missing.” In this album, Queens of the Stone Age have crafted and produced a set of rock songs that approach perfection, their compulsive power enhanced by a newfound emotional depth from Homme and his bandmates.

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